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Dogs Sniff Out Malaria

Socks worn by infected kids carry telltale odor
By Karen B. London PhD, November 2018, Updated June 2021

Medical detection dogs can smell signs of malaria on clothes worn by children infected with the disease, according to a new study. Researchers from The Gambia and the UK say that this canine ability may lead to the identification of people in need of treatment and may also help prevent the spread of the disease.

Previous research has shown that when people are infected with malaria, their odor changes, making them even more attractive to the mosquitoes that carry the disease. Armed with that knowledge, researchers trained dogs to detect the smell of malaria using clothes worn by people known to be infected with the disease. Then, they tested the dogs’ ability to detect that distinctive scent.

The clothes used in the test were socks worn by children in The Gambia in West Africa. There were 175 pairs of socks tested—30 worn by children infected with the parasite that causes malaria and 145 worn by children free of it. After the socks were worn overnight, they were shipped from The Gambia to the UK for testing. The dogs picked up on the key scent from 70 percent of the socks worn by infected children, and incorrectly alerted to 10 percent of the socks worn by healthy children.

The long-term goal is to use specially trained dogs to help detect and eradicate malaria. Dogs may be able to screen people at airports to prevent the spread of this disease and to find carriers of it who go undetected because they have no symptoms. The results of this preliminary study are promising, but the dogs are not yet ready for routine screening. Though the study showed that dogs are able to sniff out malaria, their accuracy needs to be improved before these dogs’ talents are put to use in a widespread way.

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life